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Franchise Sales Leads–An Evolutionary Tale

Back in the day, franchise company representatives would use the telephone to qualify or disqualify leads and wait for the next call. Meanwhile, some of the leads would keep calling, because your company contact was their primary, if not the only, source of information about your franchise opportunity. Leads showed up and said, essentially, “educate (sell) me.” How luxurious to control how leads contacted your company, what information was availableto them, and when and how your business delivered that information to them.
Then leads began to show up in this electronic mailbox on your personal desktop computer, if there was one yet. Either way, the phones were a lot quieter. But, at least for a while, the phone numbers they provided in these inquiry forms on the Internet were accurate and, more often than not, franchise company representatives would talk to the lead within a call or two and be off to the races with those that remained engaged because they still controlled the information people sought to evaluate your franchise business.
Then your email started overflowing. Every day there were more leads and they started to lose their luster. There were still buyers in the mix, but finding them was less fun and more work.
Then people started sending tire-kicker leads into a fancy lead management system that identified the good ones and fed them all the same information according to the same process. This produced new franchisees like new cars rolling off the assembly line. Not like the good old days, but better than calling every last no good lead.
Then there were less leads appearing in your lead management system and sales slowed. Lead volume, the fuel firing an increasingly inefficient franchise recruitment process, was drying up. Or was it?
What happened and where did all the leads go? How are staff supposed to do their job of processing volumes of leads, or at least engaging those that jump through the right qualification hoops, if there are so fewer leads, and they are less than stellar?
Economic downturn and lending paralysis aside, perhaps the leads are still out there, but they’re just behaving very differently these days. They no longer need the franchise company contact to get the information that allows them to determine if your franchise is worth talking to at all.
Why do franchise directory sites or “portals” still have a lot of visitors, but fewer using the inquiry forms to request information from your franchise? Because an increasing percentage of visitors get the information they need about your brand at a portal. Then they continue to research your company by visiting your own site(s), scour search results about your company, and now easily search for what others are saying about your company. If your franchise passes these tests, then it might get a lead, it will be good, just like back in the day.
Okay, enough on the circle-of-life history of the franchise sales lead. The process of researching franchise opportunities and more closely evaluating those most attractive is somewhat fluid. It changes, sometimes subtly and slowly and sometimes, as witnessed over the past few years, it changes dramatically. While many franchisors have recognized and adapted to these changes, many more have yet to bring their lead generation (and sales process) practices up to speed to find success in today’s recruitment environment. To get up to speed, it’s important to understand why buyer behavior is changing, the implications these changes have for your lead generation practices, and what is needed to compete for buyers.

The Implications of Buyer Behavior Changes
First, why is buyer behavior changing? In a word, information. Today, that information is:

• More readily available and accessible than ever before. Buyers no longer need to give companies information to get information, at least not early in their research/evaluation process. They’re deciding which companies make their first cut before franchisors have the opportunity to apply their sales process to influence that decision.

• Less what companies say about themselves and more about what others are saying about them. What others are saying about your franchise and, hopefully, how it is participating in these conversations, now trumps conventional sales communications and sales talk.

• Power for buyers. The good ones are pretty well educated by the time they start to talk with your company. When your franchise controlled the information, it generally knew what questions it would be addressing first. Today, that is no longer the case.
Second, what does this open season on information mean for your franchise development facility? It means that your people and process must be, or become, intuitive and adaptable. Today, increasingly well-informed and sophisticated candidates require some sales process flexibility. Companies can no longer assume that every lead is starting at the same place, or that he or she will accept the idea that the only way to interact with your franchise is by following a rigid process. One size does not fit all.
John Doe may have read franchisee satisfaction surveys about your company, purchased or downloaded your Franchise Disclosure Document, started calling your franchisees and Googled your executive team, all before contacting the franchise and becoming a “lead.” Meanwhile, Joe Shmoe may have inquired about your company through a portal or your own site after reading one quick article about your company. Two very different leads, right? Resisting the convenience of forcing them into the same starting point requires that franchise have smart development people (even frontline qualifiers) that understand today’s recruitment environment and can think on their feet to adjust their approach and process engagement points appropriately.
Third, what does your franchise need to do to compete for buyers? Here’s the tough love, albeit a positive development for franchising at-large. Franchise companies need to have a solid concept with clear evidence of credibility and marketplace performance. At a minimum, they need to find and hone their appeal-factor, although the days of the manufactured or smoke and mirrors appeal-factor appear to be over. Franchisors can certainly shape surface-level demand and generate leads with a budget and a plan. However, unattractive concepts—those under-performing, of questionable reputation, poor validation, poor or no Item 19—are having an increasingly difficult time converting these leads into serious candidates and getting the right ones to the finish line.

Still Out There
Yes, leads and buyers are still out there. Franchises can find leads wherever they’re finding information about your business without (or at least before) talking to you. Research is online—research results, increasingly weighted to social mentions about your business, portals, your own site(s)—and the leads are still there and growing. They’re also still at franchise expos and reading print, even if their next step is to go online to continue researching prior to contacting your company.
Your leads and buyers are still there. They’re just not connecting with your business as early and often as they used to. Leads are really just people raising their hand when they’re ready to engage. So why do so many franchisors continue to require fields on lead forms like mailing address or how much money someone has? Do companies really need to mail or ship a VHS tape to prospects before starting an email exchange and have a phone conversation? Is your franchise still throwing out leads because they’re not ready to share how much money they have before your first conversation?
People are increasingly resistant to disclosing personal information online and most no longer do so absent a sufficient payoff of convenience, novelty or access to otherwise unattainable information. The good news is that participation with social networks is ubiquitous and, even if the predominant demographic may be a bit young for franchise buyers today, in time, all of your leads and buyers will come from this logged-on population.
So your company is getting fewer conventional Internet leads? Guess what, many, perhaps most visitors at portals and your sites are logged on to one or more of their social networks all the time–social networks with which they’ve shared a lot of their personal information. Is it possible that some of their profile information can be passed directly into your inquiry form, perhaps in exchange for accessing a great franchise business snapshot report? Sure. Careful now, you’re getting into providing quality information not readily available elsewhere, and using social technology to enable an easy, convenient sales connection with a potential franchisee. This could be called a lead, and it would be good, just like the good old days.
Your leads and buyers are still out there, many in the same places they’ve always been, some swimming in new ponds. Give them a new and better reason to connect with your franchise and make that connection as convenient and painless as possible. Sales lead behavior will continue to evolve. Make sure your company is evolving its practices accordingly, and it will continue to make quality sales connections in today’s recruitment environment. It’s okay, we can call these “leads,” and they’ll be great. 

Matt Alden, CFE, is president of Franchise Solutions, Inc. and Franchise.com, a member of IFA’s Supplier Forum Advisory Board, and drummer in the Franchise All Star Band. He can be reached at 603-570-2922 or malden@franchise.com.

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